The House of Representatives failed its first test the other day on responding to the potential impact of new trade legislation on recovery from the stock market crash, but it may do better next time.
Republicans, in a surprise move that offended some legislators' sense of fairness, tried unsuccessfully to shelve the amendments to the omnibus trade bill introduced by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who also happens to be a candidate for President. Democrats, to save their colleague's face, rushed to the rescue and defeated the maneuver. Given the parliamentary sensitivities of the moment, that was understandable. But the Gephardt amendment should be stripped from the legislation. Its mandatory retaliatory action would have a crippling effect on efforts to free up world trade.
Almost 200 members of the House and Senate comprise the conference committee that is trying to merge separate bills passed by each of the two houses. They have before them about 2,000 pages of legislation, much of it intended to protect special interests, and including provisions that would deny the President the kind of flexibility and authority he needs if the United States is to negotiate fairer trading arrangements.
One encouraging development has occurred in the conference proceedings. At its initial session on Oct. 22, the conference committee approved fast-track authority for the President to negotiate the new General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. Existing authority expires Jan. 3. This was intended by the conferees as a post-Crash reassurance to financial markets and so it should be taken. But it is not enough. The specter of Smoot-Hawley, the punishing trade-protection legislation that accelerated the nation's plunge into the Great Depression, lurks in many elements of the bills adopted by the House and the Senate. Until the conferees bury these excesses, including the Gephardt amendment, the reassurance will be incomplete.